House of Cards shows it can continue to shock and enthrall in a post-truth world, as the 2016 Presidential Election looms ever closer in Underwood's America.
House of Cards has a reputation for focusing on the sensational over the real as it follows Frank and Claire Underwood (Kevin Spacey and Robin Wright) in their quests for power and presidency. That’s not necessarily a complaint – this is the series that kickstarted Netflix’s phenomenal line-up of original content after all – but following the turbulent and extremely rapid rise of “post-truth politics” in the year since Season 4, you could be concerned that in its effort to stay more astonishing than real life, House of Cards is at risk of becoming too dramatic for its own good. Fortunately, if the opening chapter is anything to go by, the series swerves such a mistake by expertly switching focus from sensationalism to suspense.
Opening with a clever fake playing off Claire’s unexpected fourth-wall break in the Season 4 finale, we are thrust straight back into the ICO terrorism crisis and the aftermath of Tom Hammerschmidt’s (Boris McGiver) damning article on the Underwoods just two weeks ahead of the 2016 Presidential Election. What follows is an hour of sheer dramatic delight as Frank and Claire go on the offensive, “bringing the terror” as promised at the end of last season. There are declarations of war, an uncomfortable funeral, and the manhunt for home-grown terrorist Joshua Masterson. Before you know it the credits are rolling, with the Underwoods’ future still hanging in the balance. It is truly thrilling stuff, and leaves much to be discussed.
Will Frank’s astounding diversion tactic work to distract attention away from Hammerschmidt’s article, or has Republican presidential candidate Will Conway (Joel Kinnaman) done enough to manipulate the situation and corner Frank into the grilling he deserves? How far are Frank and Claire prepared to go with ICO to instill terror in America and ensure that votes come their way? What exactly are LeAnn Harvey (Neve Campbell) and Aidan MacAllan (Damian Young) doing within the NSA? And just how will all this play out in the looming election? With so many questions and so many story threads it would be easy to lose track of each character as they flit around the country in their schemes to stay on top, so it is credit to episode director Daniel Minahan and writer Frank Pugliese that the plots never get muddled whilst the drama moves at breakneck pace.
Of course the performances help sell the fantasy as well. Spacey has now fully embodied the persona of Frank, taking his animosity to a whole new level, especially in one scene at the end of the episode – who knew a President could be so cold? Helping Frank in his bid for a second term is his wife Claire, once again played masterfully by Wright. The dynamic between the two leads is one of the most fascinating aspects of the episode, with both Underwoods proving tacit manipulators as they stop at nothing to achieve their goals. One scene with Claire in particular makes for uncomfortable viewing, as she twists the grief of Masterson’s mother to the Underwoods’ own benefit. And although Spacey and Wright are the stand-outs, the performances are good across the board, immersing you in the dark fantasy of Underwood’s America.
With so many plot threads to pick up from last season, and with the constant temptation to “out-do” real life, House of Cards‘ fifth season could have proved to be an overly sensational mess with no coherent narrative, and admittedly, at the end of Ep 1 those concerns haven’t entirely been put to bed. Indeed, there are elements of Trump in here, with a parallel to his “Muslim ban” taking form as a tool used by the Underwoods to control through fear. It also remains to be seen how once-pivotal characters are utilised going forward, with Doug (Michael Kelly) and Seth (Derek Cecil) having notably little to do this episode. But on the whole this first hour demonstrates that the show can adapt and change while still staying cohesive. The tension and drama have ratcheted up a notch without feeling over-the-top, whilst each character and their stories are balanced nicely by Minahan and Pugliese. In truth, I just can’t wait to dive back in and see what other dark plans the Underwoods have to hang on to their house of cards – before it inevitably all comes crashing down.
All 5 seasons of House of Cards are available now on Netflix.